“It’s important to maintain a non-judgmental approach and build a relationship from the start.”
― Barry McIntosh, Young Fathers of Santa Fe
“The first contact is most important. Don’t say something like, ‘I can’t help you today. Come back tomorrow.’ They won’t come back."
― Patricia Littlejohn, South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families
The first one-to-one participant-staff interaction typically takes place before enrollment. This conversation is generally informal and may be on the phone or in person at a teen health clinic, court proceeding, doctor’s office, or street corner. No matter where it occurs, this conversation is likely to be crucial in a father’s decision whether to get involved with a program. Preparing staff to engage in these conversations is critical to success. Staff members who work one-to-one with fathers should be aware of their own skills and limitations so they know when they can help a father directly or need to seek assistance from a colleague or partner agency with more specialized knowledge.
Experienced outreach workers emphasize the importance of listening and taking cues from the dad’s comments. A father might speak about his need for a job to generate income so he can meet child support obligations, which presents an opportunity to discuss how the fatherhood program can help with employment as well as developing a stronger father-child relationship. Some men express frustration about their relationships with the mothers of their children or the court system, which provides the opportunity to develop trust with fathers by listening to them carefully, empathizing with their situation, talking about co-parenting, and explaining how the program might be able to help them navigate the court system and improve their communication or presentation skills. Many practitioners agree on the importance of not overpromising what they or the program can deliver; ultimately, that will result in a loss of trust.
The overall “feel” of a program can determine whether fathers stay or leave. Fatherhood practitioners agree that showing genuine concern and interest in establishing a long-term relationship are essential to creating trust. Listening carefully to figure out the father’s needs, addressing urgent or initial needs, and always demonstrating honesty and trust are cited as essential skills for one-to-one work.
Many men who come to fatherhood programs struggle with depression and low morale as a result of life experiences and current circumstances. They have often felt rejected and let down by various institutions and programs. Many have not had loving, actively involved fathers in their lives. Therefore, helping dads identify and manage their emotions―anger, resentment, disappointment―can be a key component of successful one-to-one contact. “Try to get them out of the eye of the storm. Calm them down, slow them down, and help them to see things more objectively,” one fatherhood program manager recommended.